Monday, May 14, 2007

Why minimal guidance doesn't work for novices

Last week my coworkers had an extensive back-and-forth email exchange regarding the article on current research on PowerPoint published by the Sydney Morning HeraldIt began when a coworker emailed the hyperlink to the news article ( highlighted two key findings:
  1. It is more difficult to process information if it is coming at you in the written and spoken form at the same time. (So don't read the bullets on a slide).
  2. Teachers should focus more on giving students the answers, instead of asking them to solve problems on their own
We all agreed that PowerPoint can be deadly as I noted in a previous posting. There was some confusion over that second finding, and since the news article was vague I volunteered to contact Dr. Sweller regarding that item. I specifically asked him:
Specifically I am interested in a paraphrased statement in the article that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald that states the following:
"The findings that challenge common teaching methods suggest that instead of asking students to solve problems on their own, teachers helped students more if they presented already solved problems."
Am I correct in interpreting this to mean you think learners should be shown a solved problem with the instructor showing them how it is to be solved? Would you then follow up with additional problem which would allow the learner to practice what they were shown?
Dr. Sweller's replied:
In answer to your specific question, when we use worked examples, we normally follow them immediately with an appropriate practice problem.
To summarize, I was correct in my assumption that Dr. Sweller was not advocating just giving learners the answers, but rather he argues that teachers should demonstrate how a solution to a problem is resolved so that learners can determine the logic behind it AND THEN follow up with an appropriate practice problem.
What Dr. Sweller has issue with, as argued in a paper he coauthored with Paul Kirschner and Richard Clark, is the practice of "minimally guided instruction," also known as discovery learning, problem-based learning, etc. They argue that minimally guided instruction "generates a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to learning." (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). The paper, Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching, analyzes a host of prior research and draws the conclusion that minimally guided instruction does not work to alter long-term memory because the focus is on problem solving not building appropriate schema which can be applied to solving a host of problems.
In that paper (which is attached) it is argued that novice learners benefit greatly from a more structured learning approach in which "worked examples" are demonstrated by the instructors so that the learners understand the processes involved before they are given an opportunity to solve a similar problem on their own. A co-worker summarized this extremely well during our exchange last week when she pointed to her own empirical observations:
Having worked extensively with training teaching assistants in mathematics, I can agree with the research:  Showing the students how to work a problem—and continually taking them back to the point in the solution at which they begin not to understand—is much more effective than demonstrating and then saying “Now you do it.” 
The attached article and others authored or coauthored by Dr. Sweller can be found at:


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